Out of nowhere, Caleb Ferguson has emerged as a high-leverage bullpen arm for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and fans can't seem to understand why. It's no wonder this team is on pace for its worst ERA in team history since moving to LA.
The front office had this pitching staff, especially the bullpen, largely unprepared for 2023, as evidenced by the fact they thought Alex Reyes could be a late-season savior (and he's now out until 2024).
Though some unexpected occurrences have derailed the team's plans -- like Alex Vesia becoming one of the worst relievers in MLB, Ryan Pepiot missing over three months to start the year, Noah Syndergaard completely losing all of his stuff, and Dustin May re-injuring his elbow -- the Dodgers also irresponsibly relied on so many other unpredictable outcomes to improve their situation.
They banked on Yency Almonte replicating his flash-in-the-pan 2022 (he has a 6.33 ERA and 1.48 WHIP). They relied on a Phil Bickford bounce back (7.33 ERA, 1.63 WHIP). They thought Jimmy Nelson would eventually contribute (still hasn't in literal years). They thought Daniel Hudson would be back and ready after tearing his ACL (multiple setbacks still have him out of action). They're still waiting for the Brusdar Graterol breakout (where he's not falling over and making errors on the mound).
But hey, they hit on Shelby Miller. Don't say the Dodgers never hit on a low-risk, high-reward bullpen signing ever again!
All of these factors have resulted in Ferguson getting way more high-leverage innings than anybody's comfortable with, and after a good start to the season, he's completely melted down as the Dodgers have increased his usage in the spotlight.
What are Dodgers thinking with Caleb Ferguson's usage?
On May 31, Ferguson had a 1.35 ERA, 2.22 FIP and 1.20 WHIP. On June 13, he owns a 3.91 ERA, 3.88 FIP and 1.49 WHIP. He's gotten shelled in five of his last six outings, surrendering eight earned runs on nine hits and five walks.
Once Roberts elevated him to ninth-inning duty, it's been an absolute disaster. Four of the five outings over this two-week span have featured Ferguson trying to hang onto a lead, preserve a tie, or keep the game within striking distance in the ninth. His lone "accomplishment" was allowing a run in a 6-5 win over the Rays.
Then, he was handed the opener role on Sunday against the Phillies in a Dodgers' bullpen game because Roberts wanted him to handle Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, Nick Castellanos and Bryce Harper, if it went that far (it did). After a Schwarber groundout, Ferguson gave up three straight singles and a run before striking out Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott. He got the loss, as the Dodgers fell 7-3.
Though Ferguson's only 26 years old and has shown an ability to handle major league hitting, the Dodgers have shifted too far in the wrong direction thinking he can all of a sudden start taking care of business in pressure-filled spots.
Opponents have a .725 OPS against him with runners in scoring position in 75 games. That number jumps to .823 with two outs and RISP. From innings 7-9, he's allowed an opponent slash line of .218/.320/.390 with 45 runs scored, 17 home runs, 50 walks, and 11 hit batters in 109 innings.
His best work comes in innings 4-6 (.226/.273/.315), which, quite frankly, is where he belongs based on his arsenal. He's a two-pitch guy with a solid fastball and relies mostly on his (new) cutter. He's not exactly a power pitcher, so his stuff doesn't theoretically "play" in the later innings or against fearsome sluggers. Though his underlying metrics are fairly good, the Dodgers can't be taking that at face value.
Ferguson is a great bullpen asset to have, but the Dodgers got too excited and jumped the gun on his usage. Time to swing back in the other direction before even more damage is done to this group as a whole.